Earlier this month, The Washington Free Beacon, the conservative online newspaper, reported that the National Science Foundation was spending over half a million federal dollars “to videotape male engineering students while they work in labs” to see if they are committing “microaggressions” against women. The Daily Caller was more openly sarcastic, with a headline that read, “Feds Blow $548,459 To Study ‘MICROAGGRESSIONS’ Toward Female Engineering Students.”
But was the derision deserved? The description on the NSF site made me wonder if the University of Michigan-based study might have some potential merit, despite being titled “Microaggressions in Engineering Student Teams.” Granted, the term “microaggressions”—coined in the 1970s to denote subtle unintentional slights based on race, gender, and other group characteristics—often refers to absurd “offenses” such as calling America a melting pot or getting ethnic names mixed up. But the University of Michigan study ostensibly focused on real biases, conscious or not—such as female engineering students in coed teams being relegated to less important tasks or having their input ignored. Is this worth studying? Certainly, if there is evidence that such a pattern exists. Without further details, dismissing the study as a waste of tax dollars seemed somewhat harsh.
After an email exchange with the principal investigator, University of Michigan psychology professor Denise Sekaquaptewa, I found out that the press reports had some inaccuracies: for one, the study does not focus solely on men’s microaggressions toward women but also tracks offenses by women, toward other women and sometimes toward men. Yet, in a more basic sense, the critics were on point. Whatever valuable data this study may yield, it is primarily an exercise in trivial pursuit coupled with speech policing—directed at a problem that may not exist.
What sorts of behaviors will count as “microaggressions” in the study, which will observe mixed-gender teams of students working on group projects for an engineering class? (Each team of four or five students agreeing to participate in the study will have three video-recorded work sessions.) Sekaquaptewa told me that it would be “a variety of negative behaviors including those that are considered microaggressions in the psychology literature”:
We code for the use of sexist or racist language, such as the use of gendered pronouns, making fun of an individual’s name (e.g., because it is hard to pronounce), or demeaning jokes; assumptions of inferiority, which includes ignoring or interrupting a team member such that an individual’s contributions are not heard, or expressions of surprise at an individual’s level of accomplishment; sexual objectification, such as general comments that objectify men or women, or unreciprocated advances; general rude behaviors, such as sarcasm, unwarranted criticism, condescension, or disengagement.
In other words, a student’s casual reference to a generic engineer as “he” is enough to the women on the team to be victims of a microaggression-riddled hostile climate. So is a single unreciprocated flirtation, or, presumably, a comment about the sex appeal of an absent student or an entertainer. (At least “objectification” is treated as a two-way street!). And who decides when enthusiastic praise for someone’s accomplishment becomes an “expression of surprise,” or which criticism is unwarranted—or, for that matter, what jokes are demeaning?
At this point, no preliminary findings from the teamwork observations are available. But Sekaquaptewa did share some data from another portion of the study: interviews with 43 engineering students in ten focus groups, conducted in the fall of 2014. One in four had “experienced or observed microaggressions” during teamwork on a group project, and 72 percent “reported witnessing microaggressions” as part of their general experience at the College of Engineering. (Of those, about half reported microaggressions based on race or ethnicity; a similar proportion reported gender-based microaggressions.)
Did some of these microaggressed-against students face genuine sexism or racism? Possibly so. But, in a fundamental way, the study is based on a faulty premise.
The study’s stated goal is to test whether microaggressions make the climate in engineering less friendly for women, “leading to a gender gap favoring men in the important engineering outcomes of learning, performance, and persistence” and contributing to women’s underrepresentation in the profession. Yet, while engineering remains a male-dominated profession, one thing that is not a factor in this is greater attrition among women in engineering programs. Earlier NSF-funded research, completed in 2005 and published in 2008-2009, disproved the notion that women drop out of engineering programs at a higher rate than men did. As tech blogger Stephen Mraz put it:
Women are a minority in engineering schools, making up only 20% of engineering grads. In contrast, women earn over half of the bachelor degrees in agricultural, biological, chemical, and social sciences. But women aren’t bailing out of engineering once they get a taste of it in college. In fact, the studies found that a female freshman in engineering is just as likely as a male freshman is to complete the course of study.
One can debate whether women’s much lesser likelihood of choosing the field is due to innate sex differences in personality traits and interests or to cultural forces including the “masculine” image of engineering—or to some mix of both. But microaggressions in college engineering programs are clearly not responsible for keeping women out.
This is confirmed by earlier and recent data. A study published in The International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education in 2014 found that, among mechanical engineering majors tracked from 1987 to 2010, women were more likely than men to complete their degree within six years — the gap was very small for whites but fairly sizable for black students. The authors also noted that, across all engineering majors, “women do nearly as well or better than men in all racial groups, and Black males and Hispanic males stand out as having low graduation rates in the starting major.”
(Interestingly, another recent study found that male students who leave science, engineering and technology programs are more likely than their female counterparts to drop out of college altogether rather than switch to another major—a fact that seems to support widespread concerns about males lagging behind in higher education. But don’t look for federal grants to investigate whether microaggressions are driving them out.)
What does Sekaquaptewa have to say about this? In her email, she insisted, “Although achievement gaps have recently decreased, there remains a gap in persistence for women,” (a claim contradicted by all available evidence). She added, “Women are much less likely than men are to stay in the engineering profession post-graduation.” The second assertion is true, but this gap seems to be related primarily to childbearing and childrearing. Again, one could argue that more should be done to help female engineers balance career and motherhood—but eradicating sexually objectifying comments and gendered pronouns in college engineering teams will do nothing to address this problem.
So yes, it’s fair to say that the NSF is wasting more than half a million dollars—pocket change by federal standards, but your tax dollars nonetheless—on a study that is likely to do little more than encourage petty grievances. Then again, I have learned one valuable thing: if a study has the word “microaggression” in its title, you absolutely can judge the book by its cover.